Monday, 15 March 2010

Thank you Phil

I never care in the slightest what supporters of any other clubs think of Phil Brown. And today, the day his dismissal from duty prompts the worse of prejudiced, witless, anonymous opinions from the kind of moron whose football comes purely from armchair and tabloid, I care even less, should that be possible.

The man fulfilled the dreams of a footballing city, one that had suffered generations of underachievement on the pitch and idiots, crooks and incompetents dragging the club down off it. Worthy managers - not to mention a fair measure of deeply unworthy ones - could not get the Tigers into the top flight.

But Brown did. And that is a legacy that will maintain him as a club legend for as long as Hull City is in existence. He is a manager without equal when one examines the rollcall of gaffers that have held the post. Eternal gratitude will always be offered to Cliff Britton, Terry Neill, Colin Appleton, Brian Horton, Warren Joyce Brian Little and Peter Taylor. But none of these are revered. Brown is and always will be.

It's one of the detrimental effects of the internet that you have to read through a swathe of inarticulate, uninformed dross while searching for the good stuff. And yes, I understand the irony of that statement while running a blog that many will find both inarticulate or uninformed. But when Brown's sacking was announced this morning, the reaction of most football supporters I found online was dismally predictable.

The usual stuff was churned out about team talks on the pitch, skin pigment, earpieces, singing on the pitch, the recent kerfuffle in front of Hull's order of the fragrant Women's Institute. Guff, the lot of it. Only the kindlier souls recalled that Brown's three and a half years at the helm consisted of cheating relegation, earning promotion to the top tier for the first time via a debut day at Wembley and then, albeit scruffily, surviving that first Premier League season.

I don't care about his liking for ultraviolet rays or sartorial flaws. It matters not a jot whether he ruined Sloop John B. Just look at those achievements, for heaven's sake.

The incredulity of the occasion at Wembley can be heard now in John Murray's exceptional commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live on that momentous summer day in 2008. He only said "Hull City are in the Premier League", but did so in a tone that wouldn't have been out of place had a girls' under 11 team made the Premier League. The Tigers only had history via meagre longevity, not by achievement. That is, until Brown came along.

The Premier League is a different beast, and there is much to be said, with a touch of hindsight, for the argument that the Tigers wouldn't have made such a compelling, nose-tweaking start to life as a member of the elite had the clubs they overcame been even remotely able to take these upstarts seriously. Arsène Wenger acknowledged a lack of commitment from his team after a daring 4-3-3 formation beat the mighty Gunners 2-1 at the Emirates and shot Brown and his team to worldwide fame and intrigue. It was and remains the most sporting thing Wenger ever said about us, and much has occurred since that win to give him the ammunition too.

Nonetheless, neither Brown nor City could be held responsible for the failings of bigger clubs with eyes off the ball, and so he became the Manager of the Month for September 2008. He was being asked to appear on television, he gave big interviews to broadsheet newspapers, he revelled in the spotlight.

Naturally, the British attitude is to raise someone's standing and then do as much as possible to knock them from it, and Brown's alfresco lecture to the players at Manchester City on Boxing Day 2008 was the moment they had been waiting for. It's a subject matter that has never quite been left alone and, in the usual press manner, only the facts that suit them - City lost 5-1, didn't win again for all bar one of the remaining games - were the ones that were regurgitated again and again as Brown's presence and ego became actively offensive for some people. This blog is duty bound to point out (again) that City were 4-0 down (and therefore drew the second half 1-1) and had lost to Sunderland heavily at home the week before, thereby prompting any rot to set in a lot earlier than Brown's detractors would prefer the public to believe. Enough senior pros have since said, frequently, that their attitude to the manager did not change at all as a consequence of the public admonition and, of course, Jimmy Bullard and co re-enacted it in celebration this season as if to draw a very thick, indelible line through the whole sorry affair. Brown shouldn't have done it, but only for his own sake.

The paucity of wins that followed, carrying over to this season, was enough to make the more pragmatic wing of the Tiger Nation declare that only the special circumstances of Brown's achievements in getting such a backgroundless club into the Premier League was stopping him from being ushered out of work. That was partially true; what was truer was that Brown was untouchable thanks to the blind faith he was receiving from Paul Duffen, a starstruck chairman whose ultra-close friendship with his manager suggested a worrying myopia as to the best future for the club. Duffen's eventual demise in November, notionally self-inflicted but later established as anything but, robbed Brown of a huge ally and forced him, with the return of a focussed and supporter-revered chairman in Adam Pearson, to rethink his methods. Brown's image improved, largely through his non-appearance in the national media beyond the requirements immediately before and after games, and things got better. Yet Pearson's trigger fingers have evidently itched from the moment he returned. He could have sacked Brown when he first arrived; he didn't do so. Each of the next handful of games felt like the last call for Brown but he won against Stoke City, against West Ham United and against Everton. Those three wins, plus a draw at Manchester City, gave him enough of a mandate to, we believed, see out the season.

So, where did it finally go wrong enough for Pearson to act? After all, but for an injury time goalkeeping error that Brown could not prevent nor prepare for, the Tigers would have earned a totally unexpected point against Arsenal. Even the defeat, due to its gallantry, means that the timing still looks odd. Nine games remain but the run-in is not spectacularly difficult compared to some. The only remaining "big four" team looming is Liverpool, and as the last-day fixture that game could well end up a dead rubber anyway. Aston Villa are still due a visit too, although we don't know when, but otherwise home matches against Fulham, Burnley and Sunderland each represent real possibilities for points, and (even allowing for a big fat zero in the away wins column) trips to Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic (less so Stoke City and Birmingham City) offer further hope for at least a share of the spoils. Brown, using the mindset of the team that frustrated Arsenal, could have led his side to those points. That he isn't going to be allowed to do so asks more questions about what Pearson's real motives are.

Brown's reputation is only tarnished superficially by those who believe that it is a crime against football to question the integrity and dress sense of the Arsenal captain, or claim that the notorious team talk was akin to a public guillotining of delicate footballers. It's a results business, and Brown wasn't getting many results but the tightness of the bottom of the Premier League meant he was still capable of becoming a hero for another year in keeping the team up. And, irrespective of whether he managed it or not, his legacy as a manager and his attractiveness to similarly sized clubs is secure.

So maybe it is an off-field issue. And this is where Duffen's unpalatable head is raised again. He resigned publicly but was sacked privately by club owner Russell Bartlett back in the autumn, and was later taken to court by Pearson over club monies that had either gone missing or been misused. Duffen's agreement to an out-of-court settlement established a level of culpability but an FA inquiry remains on the horizon. It is by no means improbable, though one deeply hopes it is a red herring, that Pearson has found evidence of wrongdoing by his manager and has got his retaliation in first prior to the FA's findings and prospective punishment. Every pair of fingers should be crossed that Brown did go for purely footballing reasons. Anything else and that reputation that the Tiger Nation have worked so hard to preserve on his behalf could die right there.

Horton is leading training but Pearson had made it clear that the new manager will be in charge by Thursday morning and will select the team for the game at Portsmouth. The identity of that manager is for another blog posting, although for what it's worth I'd rather keep Horton in charge than give Gary Megson licence to inflict his desperately negative brand of football - and his appalling habit of bawling at his players throughout a match - on City. Still, if it's just about nine matches and no more...

The last thought is to offer Brown great thanks, sincere good wishes and all the luck in the world for getting the inevitable new job. Whoever does appoint him shouldn't worry about his foibles and notice the fine football manager that he is, the one that made this infernally crisis-ridden club's most vivid dreams a wonderful reality. It's a sad day for the Tigers, and for Brown, but the starry era that today's decision brings to an end will be cast as his, all his, only his and forever his.

I hope, as he dared sing to us upon securing Premier League safety ten months ago, that it really is the best trip he's ever been on. It's certainly been ours.